OPINION: It comes as a disheartening shock that so late in the process of central-city demolitions Christchurch's greatest home is marked for destruction.
Just as citizens were coming to terms with the denuding of the downtown built landscape to the point of its being a hard-to-chart wilderness, they are told that McLean's Mansion must come down.
It is a bewildering blow, not just because of its culminating place in the list of distinguished demolitions but also because of the scanty justification for its tearing down. The mansion's owners are unable to repair it. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) therefore sanctions its destruction - a sanctioning without asking citizens for their views or fulfilling the obligation to the building entrenched in its Historic Places Trust priority for preservation category.
Had McLean's Mansion posed a danger to people if left standing in its damaged state, or been a major hindrance to Christchurch central getting back into business, Cera's rush to destruction might have been justified, but it presents no such extreme risks. It looks to be intact, is so distant from Manchester St as to not block it if it fell, and is made of malleable wood that all over the city has best rebuffed the earthquakes.
Cera evidently has accepted the owners' engineer's report that the building is unsafe - that its towers are particularly vulnerable. But so important a building should have been subjected to a thorough vetting by Cera experts with no motive to get rid of it and then cash the insurance cheque.
In not taking that sort of care, with the intention to do all that could be done to save the building, Cera has been cavalier. The most credible explanation is a failure to realise the passion citizens have for their heritage buildings and the sorrow that so many of the structures have gone.
People realise that however necessary some of the demolition has been, they have lost much of their city's identity. The loss is a gap on the ground and in the collective heart of citizens. To have that pain increased by the unnecessary destruction of McLean's Mansion is cruel.
The hope must be that the discomfort will motivate a campaign to save the mansion, just as Mona Vale, another of Christchurch's most interesting homes, was saved by a citizenry determined to save their heritage. A repeat today could see the mansion continue to stand, and not just as an unused husk. It is perfectly configured and sited for a host of uses, such as a boutique hotel or a downtown presence for the University of Canterbury.
More important, the mansion is so attractive that it would surely gain owners able to pay for restoration and then turn a profit, thus avoiding a financial impost on the public purse.
That Cera is not waiting to explore such possibilities is irresponsible and an insult to Christchurch. That the Historic Places Trust, at least in public, is maintaining its supine attitude to saving the city's heritage is deplorable.
Both organisations should be taking the lead in preserving one of New Zealand's greatest buildings and saving Christchurch from the visual amnesia that threatens its sense of continuity and the groundedness of its future.
- The Press